Verse > Anthologies > Harriet Monroe, ed. > Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 1912–22
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Harriet Monroe, ed. (1860–1936).  Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  1912–22.
 
Isaac and Rebekah
By T. Sturge Moore
 
I
  IN the cave, which he had paid for with his gold,
Had Abraham laid Sarah unto rest;
And, being past the ordinary old,
Sent forth his steward on a far behest—
To bring from out his fatherland a wife        5
Of their own kindred for his son. But life
Ebbed from him ere the man had long been gone.
Yet died he calmly, dreaming all was done
Because he wished it and so loved his son.
 
  Isaac was gentle; his full beard was soft;        10
His eyes were often on the sky, and oft
They wandered o’er the grass, for much he mused
Though rarely spoke; in ample robes was used
Reserved to walk. A long slow summer dawn,
His youth had stretched beyond the usual bound;        15
Most men are fathers ere his heart had found
Preluding stir, desire that to be born
Grows urgent. Now one afternoon he went
To sigh out in lone fields the sadness pent
By the day’s toil; for they had been his friends        20
Who were his parents. Age at times descends
As youth to fill her place grows ripe when, though
Offices be mutually transferred, yet no
Breach ever yawns, though he tend who was tended.
Fresh start they never made, since nothing ended,        25
Till even the last parting had proved kind.
And, underneath a sycamore reclined,
Isaac thought of them till he ceased to think;
For all the cordial stillness of the weather
Had passed into his soul, and, link by link,        30
Had melted sorrow’s chain. Attuned together,
The fields, the trees, the dipping dales and tops
Russet and mellow with their ripening crops,
The far-off stretches where rich aliens dwelt,
The sky’s vast peace, worked through him till he felt        35
So happy that he laughed there to himself—
A governed laugh of sound uneager health,
The warm content of every wholesome limb.
Then, when at sundown hints were borne to him
Of tinkling camel-bells and dogs that barked,        40
He backed his ear with hollow hand and harked,
Saying, “A coming of much folk is clear!”—
Rising, “’Tis from the north-east that they near!”—
Then smiled: for all at once his mind awoke;
With bliss poured in, as red wine brims a cup,        45
Swam richly round, conceiving beauty’s charm,
The presence of a person sooth as balm
Perpetual in his tent. So he walked on
To meet them with wild heart. Shapes wound anon
Up from the vale, where deepened more and more        50
The phantom dusk. ’Twas Eliezer sate
The foremost camel; but the next in state
Surpassed all others; to her whom it bore
The trusty steward, questioned, prompt replied;
She veiled herself forthwith. Holding his side,        55
Isaac was forced to stop; and they stopped then,
While down she lighted ’mong the serving-men,
Who parted; and half-running forth she came.
Surely, though soft, a new voice called his name?
He waited to make sure. She was so young….        60
But lo! her veil hung in her way; his tongue
Seemed tied; she tripped, tripped, stumbled, fell—too soon
Was touching to the earth her brow in sign
She owned him lord. Mute at portent malign
He sobbed, ran, raised, and saw her face—a boon        65
For utter wonder. She was very fair,
And seemed but frail to carry so much hair;
Strung pearls, looped round her brow by tens and twelves.
From tapping soft-brown temples scarce had ceased;
Her eyes abashed looked up despite themselves—        70
They did so long to see; and were so pleased,
Seeing, to rest on him. He did not kiss;
She kissed him—curbed the impulse, forward rushed
And gasped, while he blushed even as she blushed;
For thought grew purple with conceiving his        75
Strange backwardness to kiss. Suffered to doubt,
Hangs she in two minds or to cry or pout?
There is not time; their lips are mutually met,
Till laughter part both radiant faces wet;
Since joy robs grief of tears, has all and wants more yet.        80
 
  At length he found that his held both her hands,
Straight to be worshipped—gently smoothed of dust,
For she had soiled them falling. Who would thrust
On such absorption? Eliezer stands
And waits till they are speckless; then is heard,        85
But hardly listened to, though, duties said,
He has commenced his tale—stopped, when a word
The first time uttered turned his master’s head
With “Ah?—Rebekah? Is thy name so sweet?
Methinks I heard it broken at my feet,        90
Stooping to raise thee? Pieced again at last,
’Twas slow in coming; for it came too fast,
Even as thou didst, late to come to me….
Yet am I grown?…. for such felicity
I feel still childish.” Thus, with many a break        95
Toward the roused tents, they, through the gloaming, make;
The steward tells his tale, is questioned now,
And oft ignored before the time allow
A perfect answer. So to Sarah’s tent
They came, though stopping all the way they went.        100
 
  She was inside; he had not longed for this
And yet it seemed to pass the bounds of bliss;
Enraptured he could neither act nor think.
But the whole weary journey forced her sink
Upon a camel’s saddle draped with skins,        105
All of a heap—bead-work and quilted things
Bunched up about her languid form, her head
Seeking with droop and loll a needed bed.
Two heavy lids had shut him from her eyes,
But one hand warm in his kept paradise        110
About her spirit, while the novel scent
Of new surroundings nourished its content.
Her nurse saw now and understood her case;
Calling for water, which his hand-maids brought,
Softly she bathed the almost sleeping face.        115
Isaac, by this made capable of thought,
Ordered the daintiest feast his stores could yield;
Sent for soft cushions, built a pillow throne
Before which, all devotion, down he kneeled,
Pressing choice morsels to her drowsy lips,        120
Wooing their toil as rivals of his own;
Or in the pure milk dipped her finger-tips
To please himself, which pleased her most of all.
But still the head would obstinately fall,
Fain of those pillows. So her nurse must plead        125
That sleep, not food, is now the crying need.
Like one who doth receive unlooked-for gift,
While friends uncord it, sits, and cannot lift
Finger to help them—he, whose full veins beat,
Whose eyes swim, kneels, while care uncases feet,        130
Plunges them in a basin of bright gold,
Despite their timid shrinking from the cold.
His worship of their beauty freed the tongue
Of the old crone, as she the towels wrung,
To tell how at a stream that morning they        135
Had halted, when, by parasol green-shaded,
Her mistress traced its windings some short way
To where, supported by each arm, she waded
Over worn hummocked rock. “Pools floored with sand
She lingered at—for pleasure, paced alone;        140
But out flew, like a scared bird, either hand
Soon as her toes encountered the least stone,
With ‘Ah! Oh!’ frightened—laughing at her fear
To find help still so opportunely near.
A special toilet afterward went through        145
To please thee—please her, all that we could do
Might barely that, my lord; the water failed
And, for it would distort her, was assailed
With numberless rebukes, half-laughing things
Which wed the rippling mischief that it sings.”        150
All this, as flowers the dew, he mute receives;
Watches lithe arms glide forth from quilted sleeves,
Watches two women lift her up and hold
Her off the ground while, broidered fold on fold,
Rich skirts creep down the white-stoled tender form,        155
Till her feet droop above an emptied nest
As some young almost mother bird’s, whose rest
Deserts her there, till she can lay her eggs.
She hovers just above with pendant legs
Until her time be come, and will not stray;        160
Thus speakingly suspended those feet sway
Helplessly there. Then at his breast he caught;
They moved her as a corpse is moved, he thought.
Straight, as by fresh disaster overtaken,
He sees her tresses, from their pearled net shaken,        165
Come tumbling forth in downy deluge black.
 
  A bed had been preparing at the back;
Beyond the region of the lamp’s warm glow,
Whispering maids glid dimly to and fro;
Till, called at last, they round their mistress bent,        170
Then bore her o’er hush carpets through the tent,
And gave her leave to sleep “long as she could”,
Laughed and withdrew to share the dainty food.
Isaac sat long on through the night, aloof
From the rich bed where that soft breather slept.        175
Though she was near him, under the same roof,
He like a bodiless soul one station kept:
External things usurped him through and through;
His lips burned not to kiss, his voice to woo,
Nor for a great embrace did his arms ache;        180
Sheer bliss retained only his eyes awake,
Only his ears alert, only this thought,
Which could to clearness by no means be brought—
How, weighed with his good fortune, he was naught.
 
II
  Ah! wakes she? Nay, but in her slumber speaks;
        185
For back in Haran, gladdening friends, her mind
Goes through its smiling kingdom like a queen,
Bestowing praise and finding all things well.
At even, now, wends staidly down to draw
The water duly; and perchance, these words        190
Confused beyond his skill, once blessed the ear
Of faithful Eliezer—smiled she thus?
Ah, time goes fast with her, if it be so!
For now at last her words are audible:
“‘Thou art our sister, be thou mother fair        195
Unto a thousand million!’—so they said.”
She smiles, “O nurse! and it may be I shall!”
With that appears content and journeys on—
And happy journeys doubtless—all the way
A second time from Haran thitherward.        200
 
  He knelt enraptured at so gracious sign.
Lay there no wonder here?—this virgin come
So far and trustfully for his content?
From inward question, overwhelmed, he ceased,
Yet marvelled in believing—borne to awe,        205
Yearned, stranded on that utmost shore of thought.
Half-drowned, thus, some exhausted seaman (late
Sport of proud crests on the high-running sea)
Scans long, with still bleared eyes, deep-wooded slopes
Close-folded up at dusk, where ocean ends.        210
So his mind fed not yet, but gazed and gazed,
By slow degrees assured of what it saw
Lie curled together, hugging ease. Rich forms,
Prepared for motherhood and ready now,
Wait ’neath warm wraps, as under snow the glebe,        215
Lowly and safe. She lies with face laid soft
To nest in both her hands, which hollow down
The pillow, while her hair mingles with night;—
One darkness, one deep odor, one repose
Divine with promise. Evenly breathe her lips:        220
Her face set to cleave the gulf of sleep,
As on tense rigid wings the kite high up
Holds its own way through limitless blue noon.
To watch her silent progress through an hour,
Real, yet a vision, drew him through flown days        225
And sucked him down like a grown plant shrunk back
Within its earliest compass green and fresh.
Till, in his brooding trance diminished, he,
Transformed into a lightsome child once more,
Found native just that way of settling down        230
To slumber which her weary limbs re-found.
Yet not to sleep; to hide is thus crouched low,
Ishmael bidding him. They are alone,
Strayed from the tents in bright discovery
Of common things and neighbor banks and trees.        235
He then, as bidden, ’neath a boulder curled,
Watches his elder, planted firm, await,
On sturdy legs among stout thistle-clumps,
A goat that butts full tilt—and all too weak
For such suspense, loses the feel of it.        240
Ishmael, triumphant, “Not afraid?” had laughed.
Himself then smiled, from absence coming back;
Nor tried to explain why he was found so calm.
Again, shrunk up with fear, bound hand and foot,
Upon an altar laid at noon, he aches;        245
A knife arrests its plunge—so long that fear
Escapes him; thus lies on in sweet content,
Even as she does, till the angel-voice
Cries “Abraham, Abraham!” bringing him his soul
Truant, as seemed, a long while—strange with awe.        250
The servants laugh outside; his dreams disperse;
But still he kneels spell-bound beside the bed
His need of prayer frustrating utterance.
Yet, sensible what stars watch oe’r the tent,
Silence and stillness give him strength to feel        255
His babyhood and boyhood, manhood, one
With her to be possessed soon, with his bride.
In attitude, relation and resource
One under heaven, one in peace and hope.
He knows his father’s wealth lies round him safe;        260
His mother’s life had used this furniture;
Unto his offspring for unnumbered years
These pastures, wells and pleasant distances
Are pledged by Elohim. It seems enough:
His spirit feels indeed—too much, too much!        265
 
  A joyous wedding theirs in the old days;
No stint of cheer; to welcome limit none.
Yet tardily the promise worked for them:
Rebekah waited long ere she grew great,
Then went with twins who strove within her womb.        270
Made anxious thus, enquiring of the Lord,
To her was straight returned, for comfort, this:
“Two nations are within thy womb, and from
Thy bowels shall two peoples separate:
The one people shall be stronger than the other,        275
And the elder he shall serve the younger brother.”
Now when the day of her deliverance was,
Red and all over as an hairy coat
Forth came the first child: “Esau” called they him.
But since his brother grasped him by the heel        280
As he came forth the second, him they named
“Jacob”, for that he held him by the heel.
Her women had much mirth to witness it.
Bringing the sturdy boys for her to see,
When eased of pain, yea, merry were their hearts        285
Yet more; for that meek mother fears her babes
And shrinks from having them laid close to her,
So timid she. But when the younger yearns
And stretches both precocious greedy hands
Towards the fairest face yet seen, him swift        290
She takes, and holds henceforward next her heart.
For thus her soul had taken bent to love
Those who lay claim to service, but to dread
Those who in self-reliance ask for naught—
Even since, a child, she first had wended out        295
At herding-time, down to the village well,
Holding her mother’s hand; had picked her way
(Warned to avoid the puddles, choice of shoes
Silk-broidered by maternal love and pride)
And seen the poorer children splash and wade,        300
And not been bold, and learned no daring ways,
But had grown patient, sage, a nurse of dolls:
Who, late at length, was Jacob’s fond, fond nurse
But could not love her hardy Esau so.
 
  Thus those whose life was peace, gave birth to strife.        305
Out of the meek came greed, and by content
Were clamoring nations reared to age-long war.
 
 
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